I started my chilly election day working the precincts at the Westview fire station / Eastover Elementary school. On a normal day, three of my kids would have been inside learning, but on election day I was there dutifully holding a sign for my choice for the school board. A school board member happened to be there holding a sign for his candidate and our little tailgate was joined by a neighbor, sign in hand and even buttons. I pried a little Michigan football talk out of the school board member. Not so difficult, he's been to 170+ straight home and away games...incredible. I enjoyed my discussion with the neighbor regarding his family, a son who is a successful surgeon and who would like to commit his life to medical mission work in Central America, if I recalled the story correctly. Good folks. I shared photos of my kids ... usually all it takes, nobody really cares about my story beyond my wonderful wife and kids and I'm usually happy to keep it that way, but there was more to this day than a few fortunate guys swapping tales while playing small ball politics. It really has to do with schools and opportunities and where kids come from and where they go.
At some point in the morning, after we went through the subtle conversational jockeying necessary to determine, without offending each other, all our various political positions from the presidential race right on down through all the proposals, and after having settled into a comfortable lineup of 3 conservative-minded guys, we were joined by a fourth person, a young African-American high school girl from Ecorse. Unlike us, she didn't arrive in a BMW or a Cadillac. She was driven up from Downriver and dropped off. She wore a neon yellow Prop 3 shirt, literature in hand, and was told she'd be picked up around 7:30. She was promised lunch, but confessed she was skeptical of getting it. We welcomed her into our little huddle. She didn't talk much and it took a little work to get her to warm up, but we gently pried bits of information from her and did our best to make her feel welcome. Pretty clear she had little idea what Proposal 3 was about. Didn't matter, she had the day off and she had an opportunity to make a little money. Who can blame her.
Her presence there, however, got me thinking. What must it be like to attend school in her district? Her trajectory in life may very well depend on the Ecorse schools. By most objective measures, that district is struggling. It regularly ranks near the bottom in MEAP and MME scores. The city itself has an emergency manager and, I think it’s fair to say, a long and sordid political history. It must be tough for a kid growing up there and going through the public school system. She will have to catch a break. Over the course of the day, she joined our group on and off and with each chance I tried, subtly, to give her my best advice. Get through school, get into college and, at all cost, get a degree. Look for your opportunities, punch every ticket to a higher plateau and work your way up from there.
Easy to say … so much harder to do if you have not been academically or socially prepared for it. Lack of familial resources and support (often, not always), grants that only cover so much of the cost, scholarships that often go to kids from better districts and loans that only go so far. There is a path, it’s just a harder path to find and usually a much harder one to follow.
A lot is being written about the Oxford Foundation and the proposed educational reforms and a lot will be written. A word of caution. Not every school district is working like Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham or Gross Pointe. As we have this discussion, we have to be mindful that serious reform may be necessary for other districts in our state. It's complicated. Holding on to what you have, holding on to your advantage, to your system that works and yet fixing a system that isn't working for so many others. It will be tough. We’ve invested in our community and continue to do so. I hope the new law protects our investments. Things like our hold harmless millage allow us to maintain our commitment as a community to great schools. But change is coming for people like this young lady and it seems that it is the right thing to do.
I recently had the chance to discuss the educational reform package with a friend of mine who happens to be the principal at a large public school (not BHSD) and he said that he's not afraid of competition and that the package has a lot of appealing things in it. But it's "+1", as he referred to it, meaning that each of the good ideas are pushed one step too far. So much so that the whole thing is utterly unworkable. In his professional opinion, it creates terrible incentives in the way we teach our kids.
I've made my objections to these proposed laws well known. In a nutshell, I object to scope of the reforms. Someone once said (and I'm paraphrasing) “no large experiments with kids or the military". That’s good advice. This is not something we can afford to get wrong. Perhaps we should start with a meaningful swath of the under-performing districts first. Implement, evaluate and replicate what works. Speaking of, I'm flabbergasted that it doesn't appear that anyone with the Oxford Foundation visited with the highest performing districts to ask what is working for them.
I object to the way these laws are being passed. The matter is too important for the lame duck session and yet two out of three legs of this legislative stool are being considered before year's end. Additionally, with so much riding on testing (the new system doesn't work without it), we ought to move that discussion up to coincide with the discussion of the legislation itself. Right now it essentially says, “we'll deal with that later,” but that's going to be a tough conversation that ought to be had now.
I object to the infringement on local control. The idea that the heavy hand of the state can waltz into Bloomfield Hills (or other performing districts) and force us to sell our property (bought, paid for and maintained by us taxpayers) to a charter school seems outrageous, particularly because we are not, by any measure, a failing school district. Some of this may be rectified with amendments to HB 6004 and its Senate counterpart. Let's hope so.
I object to the built-in advantage for privately run (if not owned) charter schools. Under the current proposal, charter schools would be able to reject the average student in favor of only the best students, academically speaking, and yet enjoy more funding for good performance. I'm sorry, if the traditional public school has to take all kids in a performance-funded model, so do the charters. I've always joked that I wanted to own a casino because I can legally rig all the machines and games so that I literally can't lose. Well, my second choice now would be to open a charter school in Michigan where funding will be based on performance and I get to pick all the best students! Not exactly the most courageous part of the legislation... not fair... not conservative (we're the ones that don't like artificial advantages, remember).
I object to the potentially negative effect on the academically average to below average students. If charter schools can reject low performing students, you're just asking for a parallel set of "public schools". The "public/charter" schools with the best students and the residual "traditional public schools" with everyone else. Perhaps too simplistic of a forecast, but the incentives would be in place to cause this to happen over time.
I object to performance funding that is all sticks and no carrots. You can't punish a district for low performing students and then not reward them for high performing ones. Besides, if you reward them for high performing students, districts will have an incentive to unclog the upward educational paths for high achieving students.
I object to the difficulty this creates for districts in their year-to-year planning. Under such a fluid system with huge financial fluctuations possible, and with everything financially riding on testing, how do you plan? Caps should be placed on year-over-year "defunding" so that precipitous drops don't leave large student populations without viable options.
All of these issues deserve a thorough discussion. Reform is needed and possible, but we need to be more thoughtful in the approach. As the proposal stands now (and it’s only a proposal, as I was very recently reminded by a state senator), I have to say that it looks like it was written by someone seeking a rather obvious advantage for businesses that want to open charter schools for high performing students. I have no problem with charter schools, conceptually. I have no problem with competition or incentives, but we can do better than what is currently proposed.
So back to election day. I parted ways with our friend from Ecorse around 7:00 and went off to a small victory party. Not sure if she got her lunch. I assume she was picked up. I hope she felt welcome. I hope she listened to my advice. I had a little extra credibility with her, I suspect. I knew her, sort of, in a way. I actually knew her uncle, who enjoyed somewhat legendary status as an athlete in Ecorse. You see, I grew up in Ecorse. I spent half of my life there. I didn't go to the public schools. My parents wanted more. Thanks to them, I punched my ticket through a Catholic K-12 education, to college, to law school, out to the "248" and eventually to Bloomfield Hills...actually I live in the "Township", as I was once reminded by a law partner of mine. Right where I belong, I thought.